Such Great Heights
LOW Yep, the final boss is awful.
WTF Unlockable hats… which fall off when Otus gets hit once.
Of all the contemporary indie titles that cater to retro nostalgia, I don’t know that I’ve ever played a game that so fully recaptures the spirit of a bygone era than D-Pad Studio’s Owlboy.
It’s not that Owlboy could be mistaken for an actual SNES game – on the contrary, it’s so full of modern technologies that the developers coined a new term (“hi-bit”) to describe this brand of throwback. But Owlboy carries a level of enthusiasm for this medium rarely seen in a climate where a hundred new releases pop up on Steam every week. I’m old enough to remember when videogames weren’t taken for granted, and so, it seems, does D-Pad Studio.
In virtually any other game, when I purchase an upgrade, it’s a businesslike affair. I talk to someone, I hand them money, they hand me an item, and the transaction is concluded. In Owlboy, I talk to a shopkeeper with a cartoonishly phony smile plastered on her face, and suddenly a little penguin servant comes scurrying out from the back room, tripping over himself before giving an enthusiastic rundown of the item and briefly hinting at the woman’s dictatorial hold on her employees. There’s a unique exchange for every upgrade bought, and they’re all charming.
Everything in Owlboy is like that, so much more detailed than it had any functional need to be. Dialog scrolls with comedic timing that conveys vocal tones without any actual voice acting, characters are so exquisitely animated that their emotions are never difficult to read (impressive, given how tiny the sprites are), and some of the environments even undergo day-to-night shifts – with changes in music and everything – for no reason than because it looks pretty.
Owlboy was in development for almost a decade, and while that often spells trouble, it seems to have been time well spent here. Nothing about this game feels rushed, and virtually every frame contains something delightful that didn’t need to be there. It’s remarkably thorough work.
And yet, above all of that, the best thing about Owlboy is that it feels unique — that it channels the whimsy of an era without overtly borrowing from something else. I don’t recall many 16-bit platformers giving players unrestricted flight right out of the gate. That level of freedom is usually saved for the endgame, when players want to more efficiently scour places they’ve already been. A platformer letting us fly from the very start is like a horror movie giving us a full shot of the monster in the opening scene. It’s against the rules.
While the game’s early moments are full of sprawling and vertically-oriented outdoor environments that underscore the thrill of taking to the sky, it’s soon understood that flying will become trivial in due time, which means that Owlboy must have more surprises in store. And it does.
Not a single level in Owlboy feels extraneous because they dole out new mechanics at such a perfect pace that the game never drags. While it’s not a full-on Metroidvania, Owlboy is good about piquing players’ curiosity with obstacles before giving them the means to overcome them. I notice that my new companion’s shotgun can burn objects just after it’s been fired, and suddenly I know what to do about those thorny vines that were blocking my path earlier.
Otus, the mute owl-human hybrid who serves as the protagonist, picks up several buddies along the way, the gimmick being that he has to carry them around while they handle all of the combat with their ranged weapons. It is not, thankfully, an escort mechanic, since Otus can teleport any of them to his side at any time. The focus is purely on picking the right weapon for the right job, and also bearing in mind that the heavier the friend, the slower Otus will be to lift him up.
Combat handles like a twin-stick shooter – one of the ways in which Owlboy couldn’t be mistaken for an actual retro game – and it’s full of honest-to-god set pieces. A futuristic city being attacked by robot pirate airships is among the game’s earlier sequences. I expected Owlboy to be charming, but I didn’t expect it to be awesome.
In fact, there aren’t many emotions that Owlboy didn’t provoke from me. It thrilled me, it regularly made me laugh, and I very nearly teared up during a couple of the game’s surprisingly frequent treks into darker, weightier material. The soon-to-be-famous and gut-wrenchingly depressing intro sequence paints Otus as a disappointment and an outcast where he was once thought to be the fated one-dimensional savior of his race. He’s the antithesis of protagonists like Link, accomplishing things in spite of what he’s told about himself, not because of it.
Consequently, Otus’s companions rank among the most natural supporting cast in recent videogame memory, likeable because they actually have his back in a world where not everyone does. Jonathan Geer’s incredible soundtrack, much of it recorded with live instruments, amplifies whatever emotion we’re supposed to be feeling at any given time.
Owlboy trips up precisely once, and it’s at the same place that so many games do — the final boss. D-Pad Studio’s attempt to raise the stakes in the eleventh hour is an exercise in terrible boss design, and a tedious gauntlet of pattern memorization that feels uncharacteristically trite in such an otherwise savvy game. What’s frustrating is that the endgame wouldn’t have needed this battle to feel climactic; the otherworldly final level is staggering to look at, and the ending has an emotional punch that’s well-deserved.
That lone and unfortunate misstep robs Owlboy of what would have been the first perfect score I’ve ever awarded on this site, but make no mistake, I unabashedly love this game. It’s a beautiful, near-perfect blend of old-school whimsy and new-school innovation. I’d never heard of Owlboy before it re-emerged earlier this year, but even if I’d spent nearly a decade anticipating this release, I can’t imagine that the finished product would have left me unsatisfied. It’s one of the best 2D platformers I’ve ever played.
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by D-Pad Studio. It is currently available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PC. Approximately 10 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: As of press time, this game has not been rated by the ESRB. It’s a surprisingly heavy game at times, but there’s no inappropriate content.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Sound does not play a vital role in the game.
Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
He was born and raised in Amish country and has yet to escape, despite a brief stint in Philadelphia, where he attended Temple University. He took a one-credit course there called "Career Opportunities for English Majors," which painted a bleak picture for prospective writers. Mike remains steadfast in his ongoing role as a video game critic, however, and has recently written for GamesRadar. Most of his work can be found on HonestGamers, where he has contributed over 200 reviews to date.
When not playing games or writing about them, Mike is a rabid indie music fan and ardent concertgoer. He doesn't read as much as he probably should, but his current favorite author is Alastair Reynolds.